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Do God and Religion Mix?

Isaiah 1: 10-20

 

 August 12, 2007

 

Steve Goodier

Christ United Methodist Church

 

God and religion: do they mix? As I pondered the Isaiah passage recently, I asked myself that question. Through Isaiah, God seems to be telling Israel that religious rites and rituals are nothing more than a bother!

 

"I have more than enough of burnt offerings,

       of rams and the fat of fattened animals;

       I have no pleasure

       in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.

 

 12 When you come to appear before me,

       who has asked this of you,

       this trampling of my courts?

 

 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!

       Your incense is detestable to me.

       New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—

       I cannot bear your evil assemblies.

 

 14 Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts

       my soul hates.

       They have become a burden to me;

       I am weary of bearing them. (NIV, International Bible Society)

 

 

They might have answered, “YOU told us to do this! It’s in the book of Leviticus. We’ve always come before you with sacrifices, rituals and rites because, we thought, that was what you wanted! We believed that was the way to atonement with you.”

 

So what are they to do now? What does God really want if God does not want their “religion”? The question is answered promptly:

 

Your hands are full of blood;

wash and make yourselves clean.

       Take your evil deeds

       out of my sight!

       Stop doing wrong,

learn to do right!

       Seek justice,

       encourage the oppressed.

       Defend the cause of the fatherless,

       plead the case of the widow.

 

“True” religion, it seems, has more to do with defending the helpless than practicing rituals and religious ceremonies. And I thought, as I pondered Isaiah’s message, that there is a distinction to be made here between our religious practices and Godly behavior. But did you catch those words:  “…wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right (good)!  Seek justice, encourage (rescue) the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”

 

That is the work of politics! Doing good, seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending orphans and widows … These words were spoken to Israel as a nation, not merely to individuals, and it is the work of politics! It’s the work of governments and nations; communities and churches.  It is also the work of individuals as they endeavor to live faithfully in society.

 

I have heard it said far too often: “All that religion has ever done throughout history is cause violence and bloodshed.” I disagree. Religion has not been the cause of violence and bloodshed; people in power have been the cause. And people in power know that nothing can inflame like religion. They know that religion can inflame people, impassion people and motivate people like nothing else.

 

True religion, however, is about “seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending orphans and widows.” It is about “learning to do good.” The rest of religion – rites, rituals and practices, pales in comparison.

 

So maybe a better question to ask is, “Do God and politics mix?”

 

Politics has gotten a bad name over the years. Mark Twain said, “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress.”

 

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger observed, “Ninety percent of the politicians give the other 10% a bad reputation.”

 

And Lily Tomlin, by no means a politician, quipped, “Ninety-eight percent of the adults in this country are decent, hardworking, honest Americans. It’s the other lousy two percent that get all the publicity. But then, we elected them.”

 

And though I don’t think the definition is universal, Larry Hardiman states: “The word ‘politics’ is derived from the word ‘poly,’ meaning ‘many,’ and the word ‘ticks,’ meaning ‘blood sucking parasites.’”

 

Maybe that’s why politics has a bad name …

 

I am a strong believer in the separation of church and state. It has been shown, especially in America, that it works better for the state, and it certainly works better for the church. The two have been mixed far too often throughout history, however.

 

  • Theocracies have been tried and have been found to be far too exclusive. Forget about having a different religious point of view in a theocracy.

 

  • Political action groups have been created to affect the election of certain politicians and to influence political party agendas – groups such as the “Religious Right” and the “Moral Majority.” But these, too, have been found to be ethically exclusive. Who defines morality for a culture? Are not ethics values to be worked out for ourselves? Shouldn’t we each decide what is right and wrong, if not by ourselves, with the guidance of our faith?

 

For example, which is more important: to safeguard the viability of a fetus, or woman’s right to make her own medical decisions? Which is right: to remove life support when realistic hope of recovery is gone, or to keep a person alive when there is any hope that the situation may change? Which is the better ethical decision: to allow impoverished immigrants to work illegally in our country, or to protect the wages and jobs of American workers? Which do we weigh more heavily: the rights of parents or the rights of a child? They WILL come into conflict from time to time. And what is of greater value: a healthy economy, peace between nations, or the spread of Democracy?

 

These questions involve the church! But … which church? Can one religious point of view decide morality for everybody else?

 

God and politics do NOT mix well when ONE religious point of view makes decisions for all.

 

  • God cannot be divorced from our social life. Listen to this encouraging language from “The Social Creed” of the United Methodist Church:

 

“We affirm the natural world as God’s handiwork and dedicate ourselves to its preservation, enhancement, and faithful use by humankind.… We commit ourselves to the rights of men, women, children, youth, young adults, the aging, and people with disabilities; to improvement of the quality of life; and to the rights and dignity of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities…. We dedicate ourselves to peace throughout the world, to the rule of justice and law among nations, and to individual freedom for all people of the world…”

 

We each have a duty to exercise our best moral judgment in the political arena. What does God have to do with politics? “…Learn to do good!  Seek justice, rescue the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” And Jesus taught us to have compassion on the poor and downcast, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

 

Though the Bible does not speak to every social issue (we must make decisions for ourselves), it can help us to set priorities. Those priorities almost always come out on the side of caring for the poor and living in peace.

 

Jim Wallis wrote the book God and Politics. I recommend it highly. He tells us that we have allowed a few religious spokespersons define what is right and wrong for the rest of us. For instance, when we hear the words “family values,” we know exactly what is meant. Why? Because the term has been defined for us. However, it has been so narrowly defined that it excludes most of our families and many of our values. What is needed is for us to claim the language of morality once again. Hunger is a moral issue. Providing the best education possible for our young people is a moral issue. Prevention of AIDS and Malaria is a moral issue. Drug dependency is a moral issue. Poverty is a moral issue. War and peace is a moral issue.

 

  • We already take our beliefs to the voting box. Or should I say “prejudices”? The Los Angeles Times / Bloomberg reported in June 2006 that readers polled about whether they could NOT vote for presidential candidates because of religion. Thirty seven percent said they could not vote for a Mormon, while 54% said they could not vote for a Muslim. NBC News/Wall Street Journal in December 2006 reported the percentage of respondents who were “very uncomfortable or have some reservations” about voting for a presidential candidate who is Mormon as 53%. And for an evangelical Christian: 54%. Fox News/Opinion Dynamics reported in December 2006 the percentage of registered voters who said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate for president who is: Mormon – 32%, Muslim – 45%, an atheist – 50% and a Scientologist – 53%. (Sorry about that, Tom Cruise.)

 

Do God and Politics mix? Let’s not mix them that way.

 

Rather, I like the assertion of John Wesley, founder of the movement that became known as Methodists and later the United Methodist Church. Wesley gave us something worth memorizing:

 

Do all the good you can,

by all the means you can,

in all the ways you can,

in all the places you can,

at all the times you can,

to all the people you can,

as long as ever you can.

 

This is the way to mix God and politics.

 

“Do all the good you can.” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Do all the good you can. Even if you don’t think it will do any good; just do it.

 

“By all the means you can.” Each of us has different means at our disposal.

 

Not too long into the American Civil War the Union finally won a victory at Antietam. President Lincoln used the occasion to produce a proclamation to free American slaves. He called his cabinet together and laid the document before them. He had been shaking the hands of well-wishers all morning and his arm and hand were stiff. He rested his arm and spoke to Secretary of State William Seward.

 

“If my name ever goes into history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it. If my hand trembles when I sign the Proclamation, all who examine the document hereafter will say, ‘He hesitated.’”

 

Then he picked up a pen and signed “Abraham Lincoln” in bold writing. That signature, coupled with a later Union victory, changed the course of history forever. American slaves were finally freed.

 

Do God and politics mix? Absolutely. The decision to free American slaves was a moral and religious decision for the president. Though it would hurt American economy, he believed it was the right thing to do. We need more presidents who will do the right thing, even though it may adversely affect the economy.

 

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can.”

 

“In all the ways you can.” I believe that the greatest of all mistakes is to do nothing because you can only do a little. Do what you can – in all the ways you can.

 

And “in all the places you can.”

 

You may never have heard of Peggy Terry. She will not go down in history as a person of great significance, but SHE is significant. Peggy Terry represents you and me.

 

Peggy lived in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1960s. This was when the “bus boycott” was in full swing. Peggy, a typical, southern white woman, was curious about the boycott. She felt no particular passion toward what became known as the Civil Rights Movement; mostly curiosity. So she and a few friends went downtown to watch.

 

She was horrified at what she saw. She saw white men throwing black women into buses. And she saw something that changed her forever. She watched while Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was beaten by five or six white men. She was astounded that he never swore or cursed or screamed at them. And he never fought back. He just let them beat him. “I’m so thankful I went down there that day,” she later said, “because I might have gone all my life just the way it was.”

 

Up to that point, she had lived an unexamined life, for the most part. She had never really stood for anything. But it all changed. Something shifted inside her. From that moment forward, she was different, and before the sun set that day, Peggy Terry, the typical white southern woman, was arrested and taken to jail.

 

She had found herself in a particular place – on the edge of an historic movement. But we, too, find ourselves in an equally pivotal, and fragile, time in history. The decisions we make today are vital. What does your faith say?

 

Do politics and religion mix? They’d better – for the sake of humanity.

 

Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.

 

Do that and you’ll find that God and politics are mixed in a healthy and wonderful way. And who knows, it just may change your life.

 





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